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American Annals of the Deaf

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On the Beat of Truth: A Hearing Daughter’s Stories of Her Black Deaf Parents
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It was my aunt Arnell who made me understand the seriousness of the accusation and of Daddy’s situation.

“My lawd, my lawd, she said. “Der’s this man runnin’ round pullin’ out his thing and tryin’ to scare all the children. Oh my goodness, what’s dis world comin’ to? Crazy people everywhere. I know dat’s not Herbert. Herbert would n-e-v-e-r do anything like dat.”

When I heard the reference to “thing,” I thought she meant a gun.

“You mean he’s pulling out his gun,” I said.

“No, no, chile, the man pulls out his ding-a-ling outda his pants. Oh my God, oh my God.” She flopped in Daddy’s favorite chair, kicked off her shoes, exposing her swollen feet, and gasped for air as she graphically gave the details as she knew them using homemade invented gestures to talk to my father since she barely knew any formal sign language. Aunt Arnell exaggerated her thin lips and facial expressions so that Daddy could read her lips to understand some of her words. He pulled out pen and paper and wrote to her. And she nodded her round head and looked affectionately at Daddy as he wrote.

Arnell had hazel eyes, a light mulatto complexion, a very stout body, and stringy straight hair that caressed her sloping shoulders. Arnell’s most endearing feature was one that all could easily see: she adored my father. “We’ll git you oudda dis mess. Lawd have mercy. Lawd have mercy.”

Mama was stunned by it all, and as a result, she didn’t know what to do. She had no experience with lawyers, jails, or even the police. The only thing she knew how to do was to become virtually invisible and not talk to Daddy or me about the whole mess.

Arnell hired a lawyer, who in turn gave us all the legal particulars, explaining to the family these facts: Daddy was accused by a woman who lived three or four blocks away of indecent exposure. A man had roamed around the neighborhood pulling out his “ding-a-ling” for all to see, and while doing this ghastly thing, he made creepy awkward sounds. The weird man did this at all hours of the morning, day, and afternoon, frightening children going to and from school.

The intervening weeks, although blurry and vague, whizzed by, and the trial was suddenly upon us. The first day I sat in the courtroom audience wearing my Sunday-go-to-church dress Mama made for me. I am awed by the austere mahogany walls, how slick the wood, how smooth, and how rich. There were white men everywhere, dressed in gray or black listless clothes, and not one wearing a smile. Big, unfamiliar legal terms were casually bandied back and forth in the courtroom between the lawyers and the judge. Some of the white men leaned over and talked to other white men. I sat there in the pews, not understanding anything but trying my best to absorb everything, feeling out of place, struggling to be comfortable.

A tall, thin white man walked up to my father and introduced himself as his interpreter. Daddy shook his hand and was genuinely relieved to see him. The interpreter stood by the witness box. The presiding judge, wearing his black robe, entered the courtroom through one of the paneled doors on the left. He was the scariest white man I had ever seen.

Suddenly a booming voice from nowhere yelled, “Hear ye! Hear ye! Please rise.” Everyone stood up, and Mama and I jumped to our feet, holding hands!

The prosecutor launched his case by calling on the neighbor who filed the charges, the woman whose child complained that a man showed her his “private thing” while she was on her way to school.

“The man made these weird sounds,” said the woman. “My daughter says it was Mr. Childress because she heard him making that kind of sound when she passed by his house one day when he was cutting grass.”

“Objection! Objection! That’s all hearsay,” yelled Daddy’s lawyer.

“I’m going to allow the mother to testify to what her daughter told her,” said the judge. “I think it would be too hard on the child to recall all that happened. And I am willing to take the word of the child’s mother because she is under oath.”

I could hear the attorney sigh as my father was sitting next to him. There was no expression of emotion on Daddy’s face, which led me to wonder whether he understood the interpreter’s description of exactly what had happened.

A short time later, our lawyer explained to Daddy and Aunt Arnell that not all was lost, because we would now have our say. He called person after person to come forward stating that Herbert was a very good person. I heard someone whisper that they were character witnesses. There were Mr. and Mrs. Mills, our neighbors across the street, who said they had known Daddy for many years, and “he is a good family man who is very proud of his children. Why, Herbert Childress even lets us take his daughter to Sunday school at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.”

Then Daddy’s boss, Sam, a short stubby Italian man, came forward to say that Daddy was a very hard worker and was always on time. “In fact, I don’t need to look at the clock in the mornings to tell you what time it is. I just know when Herbert gets to work, it is 8:15 a.m. sharp. Yes sirree, five days a week it’s 8:15, and 8:30 on Saturdays. No. No. I don’t recollect Herbert ever missed a day from work in all the ten years he has worked for me.”

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